Syed Azmat Ali, Baldia Town, Karachi

RAA_JIP_10242012_BaldiaTown_0095 (small)As we approach the building, the men accompanying me lower their voices. There is a small crowd standing in the alleyway. They stare at us as we push past, but no one says anything. They know why we have come. The home I am visiting is known to everyone, and spoken about by everyone. What befell the family there shocked even the most jaded in the neighborhood. Now I am here and as I climb the stairs I notice other silences: those in the building stair well – typically filled with the sounds of playing children, cooking meals, gossiping families, and arguing neighbors; those of my companions who have stopped talking entirely. As we approach the door of the apartment they lower their heads, take off their shoes and whisper something to each other. One of them is wearing a cap which he takes off. Their demeanor is that of men approaching a sacred place, a holy one…or a haunted one. I wait as one of them goes inside to ask permission for us to enter. I am invited in. In the living room I see a man in a white shalwar kameez sitting on the sofa. The sun streams in through a window behind him, but I can make out his pale and swollen face, his heavy and tired eyes. The men lean forward and shake his hand, quietly uttering greetings under their breath. I do the same and take a seat opposite him. After a few minutes he introduces us. “This is Syed Azmat Ali”, my companion informs me. “Five of his six children – his eldest son Aijaz, eldest daughter Zoya and his other three daughters – Ruhab, Sumera and Sama, died in the fire that night.” I see  Azmat looking at me. “Ask him what you wish.” I don’t know how to begin. There is a silence. But this one seems to last an eternity.

On September 11, 2012, a fire broke out at the Ali Enterprises Garment Factory, in Karachi, Pakistan. A major industrial operation, Ali Enterprises had just weeks earlier been given a prestigious SA8000 safety certificate by the industry funded Social Accountability International (SAI). The fire led to the deaths of nearly 300 workers, and left many thousands of family members homeless and penniless.

The stories of the families of those killed that night reveal the precarious nature of the lives of the Pakistani working class. They also provide a starting point to understand how the law, legislation and policies of the State have led to creating a vulnerable, and easily exploitable labor force. They reveal the uses of the law to serve specific economic and planning interests, and weaken worker organization and resistance.

Syed Azmat Ali and Rehana Ali lost five of their children in the fire – Zoya, aged 25, Aijaz, aged 22, Samaa, aged 19, Sumera, aged 17 and Ruhab, aged 17. Their youngest son, Azeer, aged 14, the only one who did not work in the factory, survives and is currently studying in Kotri, Hyderabad.

There had been many partings before this last one. The family, like many others forced to move from rural areas, small cities, and villages, to the teeming slums of Karachi, had to break up simply to survive. A small family general store in Kotri near Hyderabad, and no real jobs in the area, meant that the children could no longer afford to study, and that the family would have to be split. The five eldest children – Aijaz, Zoya, Samaa, Sumera and Ruhab, were sent to Karachi to find work and provide for the family. Relatives and friends in Karachi provided the assurances, the protection and the connections that led to paying work. This is how so many came and found a footing here: the threads of community and ethnicity promised security, and a ready network of contacts. Moving from shared room to shared apartment, and later from one temporary house to another, the children worked odd jobs where they could find them. Eventually, they found their way into a garment factory and a life of twelve-hour work shifts, pay by the piece, no contracts or benefits, and no questions asked. In a good month, they could bring in over Rs 20,000 ($200), but usually, they each made anywhere from Rs 7000 ($70) to Rs 5000 ($50). But with the four of them working, it was a good income. Finally, an affordable apartment was found, and their mother had joined them. A semblance of a home, and the first signs of settling down. They could begin to make other plans.

They had redecorated recently. New curtains, a new sofa, a large new desktop computer. “Zoya had bought that sofa you are sitting on a day before the accident.” Azmat’s voice is surprisingly clear and strong. And calm. “She loved decorating, making it more beautiful here. She wanted beautiful things for the house.” He turns to look at the empty seat on the sofa next to him. “They had just bought the sofas the day before the accident.” I look at the objects in the room; a faded, imitation Persian rug, an armchair, a computer cabinet and a small bookshelf placed against the far wall. There are plastic flowers in vases, some Urdu books and pictures frames on a shelf. They were making plans and putting the piece of a new life together. They even had found the confidence for ambition. Aijaz was looking for work in Saudi Arabia. Zoya’s hand had been promised in marriage as there was money enough for a dowry. The girls were to leave the factory and start their own boutique in the neighborhood. There was money for rent. “They wanted to get away from the factory.” Azmat had stayed back in Kotri and watched them become independent and speak about new dreams. He had supported them in their new life as best he could. They had wanted to make him proud. I look around the small apartment – one bedroom for eight people, a living room and a kitchen; a world emerging. I imagine the laughter of the girls, the evenings together preparing meals, sharing gossip, measuring dresses, and ironing clothes for the next day. The children were going places. They were making a home for the parents. “We will sell what we can. Get rid of the rest. ” I hear him say. “We go back to Kotri in seven days.”